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Memories of the 28th Century

Pivotal Events in History

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I was thinking about a piece of fiction that Iím writing; it is built around a somewhat mysterious event that led to great changes in the world. It was a simple murder by an unknown attacker that led to religious persecutions, the Inquisition, and great political changes in Europe. This got me to thinking about other pivotal events in history, so I leaned back and started thinking. I made a list of a dozen or so, but there must be more. I searched online, and found a few similar lists, but most such lists were of periods of time that were pivotal, rather than single events.

Periods of time are quite different from what I was looking for. World War 1 was different from the assassination of , Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The assassination was the pivotal event, while WW I was a result, a result that led to great changes, but the assassination was the trigger. Some of the other events that I found were The Battle of Senlac, the U.S. election of 1860, Caesar at the Rubicon, the birth of Genghis Khan, Saul of Tarsusí conversion, the Battle of Saratoga, Cossacks not firing on the rioters, the untimely death of Richard the Lionhearted, the signing of the Magna Carta, Jesusí birth, Mohamedís birth, and so on. There have been other such events, and I didn't include the one that triggered this idea in my mind. I will continue to lengthen the list, and I wouldn't mind getting hints from others. These pivotal events did not exist or occur in isolation; they were the final blocks in piles that led up to a certain point. If one believes in free will, then these were the final decisions, and if you believe the universe is determined, then these are culminations of chains of cause and effect.

It is amazing that something as simple as Adolph Hitler having bent down at the right moment during a street march during the Beer Hall Putsch meant that the man next to him was hit by a bullet, rather than Adolph. That simple action by Hitler led to a huge amount of trouble; that isn't to say that World War II wouldn't have happened, but it would have been very different, and the Holocaust might not have happened. Or if Richard I of England hadn't taken a walk on March 25, 1199, then he wouldn't have died from the crossbow bold the struck him, and John Lackland wouldn't have lost nearly all of the mainland possessions of England, and there wouldn't have been a Magna Carta, at least not then. And the differences would have snowballed of the centuries. Randall Garrett used that event as one of the premises of his Lord Darcy series, but the idea hasn't been worked out.

Imagine a time traveller landing near the castle of Ch‚lus-Chabrol while it was under siege, and spending the day talking with Richard, so that Richard didn't get a chance to take a walk.

Or imagine that Hannibal was feeling nasty one day and turned his army toward Rome, instead of laying waste to the surroundings. The army would probably have walked right through Rome, but we won't know, until our time traveller goes back and mocks Hannibal until he attacks the city. I would have to spend a few weeks studying the matter before I started guessing what would be different because of that.

My short list is tilted toward Europe, and I am sure that there were individual events in other parts of the world that would go on this list. This exercise in imagination shows how fragile history is and how many parallel worlds there might be, if there are parallel worlds. Just think of the Presidential election of 1960. Nixon would have sent in the free Cuban air force during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and that might have changed the result of that, and that's just one difference.

I pasted links to some lists of such events. They may tickle your imagination until it thinks of some other parallel world.

Updated 05-20-2015 at 05:21 PM by PeterL



  1. Pompey Bum's Avatar
    If you are looking for one time, turn-on-a-dime changes like the murder of Franz Ferdinand and his 9-month pregnant wife (not to mention their child), you are not likely to find too many. As Tolstoy understood, historical processes involve a high degree of complexity and their trajectories seldom align into great pivotal moments like that. The events that brought Caesar over the Rubicon, for example, had been percolating (in earnest) since his first consulship ten years earlier (and in more general terms for a generation). It is only really spoken of now because Caesar himself is said to have mused at the irony that as long as he kept his troops on one side of the little babbling Rubicon, the Roman world was at peace; but if he moved them to the other side, all hell would break loose. But there was no question of what he was going to do. By 49 BCE he didn't have a lot of options.

    If there was an "asteroid event" that wiped out the dinosaurs and allowed rats like us to take over, then I suppose that would qualify as a pivotal moment--at least for mammals. And the Black Plague (not an event per se, but presumably there was some "patient zero") and its nuclear-war grade mortality created enough religious uncertainty (some have argued) to bring about the Reformation, with its implications for modernity. It also freed up enough land to allow a new middle class (that is, the Bourgeois) enough capital to move entirely into trade, with great implications for all of what came later in Europe (and, through colonization, much of the rest of the world). The opening up of the "New World" to Europe in the 15th and 16th century obviously had profound historical, demographical, epidemiological, and environmental effects. The Irish Potato Famine, for example, which greatly impacted American immigration, seems to have originated in an infectious agent in South American bat guano, which was being imported to Ireland as fertilizer, and against which the poor spuds were defenseless.

    Other turning points could be sought in players who died before they could shake the earth (or prevent it from being shaken), although such considerations move uncomfortably into the realm of the speculative. I don't think John Kennedy's assassination changed as much it is often supposed, simply because Johnson achieved a great deal of his Kennedy's legislative agenda (the Civil Rights Bill, etc.) before moving on to his own. And Kennedy was well on his way to screwing up in Vietnam before Johnson crossed that Rubicon. There is no doubt that King's assassination profoundly affected racial relations in America, although most people forget that by 1968 King's influence in the Civil Rights movement was seriously waning. It is impossible to say how things would have played out if he had lived. His death may have done more than he could have if he had lived.

    Oddly. the death of the relatively obscure Zachary Taylor by food poisoning (apparently from drinking bad milk) may have been just as significant. Taylor was both a military genius, a war hero, and (despite being a Southerner and a slave owner) an aggressively pro-Union politician. When his term began, he was already planning to attack and roll up secessionists in the American Southwest (which he had recently taken from Mexico). He had the strength to do it easily, and most Southerners (the same who fought for secession only 12 years later) would have cheered and fought beside him in 1849. But by 1850 the tables had been turned: Taylor was dead and his Vice-President, Millard Fillmore, a pro-slavery Northerner, was now enforcing radically polarizing policies like using federal troops to retrieve long-escaped slaves from the North. Small battles were sometimes fought. Intense polarization continued under Fillmore's next two successors (not to mention Harper's Ferry and Bleeding Kansas, and by 1861 the Civil War had broken out. The difference the war brought to American government and history (not to speak of the holocaust of lives) staggers the imagination. Could Taylor have crushed the thing in its cradle? The trouble with speculative history is that it's so--speculative.

    A few other "what-ifs" come to mind: what if Tamerlane had not died of a head cold on his way to conquer China, having already established an empire from the Damascus to Delhi (and beyond)? What would have happened if Constantine had not ended Christian persecutions with the Edict of Milan in 313? Or if Julian the Apostate had not been killed fighting Persia in 363, after returning the Polytheists ("Pagans") to power? Or if Valens had not effectively destroyed Roman military power at the Battle of Hadrianopolis in 378? Or if Theodosius the Great had not made Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman world in the Edict of Thessalonika in 380? What if Attila the Hun had not died of a brain hemorrhage during sex in 453? What if Cyrus the Great, having built the vast Persian Empire, had not been captured and executed in a routine Scythian raid in 530 BCE? What if Alexander, having taken that vast empire (and then some) hadn't died of a fever at age 32?

    From a historian's perspective, most of these questions are not worth asking. The significance of each event was the product of myriad (see Lykren, I said myriad! :)) historical trajectories and the event itself sent unique new trajectories out over time: like a vast interactive spiderweb, as Tolstoy would have it, or like a giant Ouija board with everyone's fingers on it, as I like to say. But how those trajectories actually interact, it seems to me, is fair game for the novelist. So the question ceases to be "What if something else had happened?" and becomes "Why does what actually happened matter and what happened as a result?""But that is the basis for any plot, is it not?
  2. PeterL's Avatar
    As a general matter, Tolstoy was right, but there have been singular events that changed things greatly. Thanks for mentioning Cyrus; I was trying to remember something from that period, but it didn't come to mind. There were many reversals during the Roman Empire, but it's hard to tell the general trend from the turnaround; that's why I didn't even look into things regarding th early Christians.

    I didn't think of Zachary Taylor; that was a pivot, but the assassinations of Kennedy and King were not pivots, at all.

  3. Dreamwoven's Avatar
    This blog is one of the best I've come across: 220 blog entries and 6,000+ posts, and most of them mind-provoking and interesting.

    I particularly liked Pompey's comment above "If there was an "asteroid event" that wiped out the dinosaurs and allowed rats like us to take over, then I suppose that would qualify as a pivotal moment--at least for mammals."
  4. Pompey Bum's Avatar
    I agree. Peter's blog is outstanding and constantly thought provoking. As far a my comment went, thanks. I don't think I've ever made so many stupid type-os before, but that'll teach me to proofread. :)
  5. PeterL's Avatar
    I thank you for the compliments.

    Don't worry too much about typos on something like that. On your own blog it would be more important.

    And the KT asteroid was even more pivotal to theropods, AKA birds.